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IUSE Builds Community Around Improving Undergraduate STEM Education

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Strategies for teaching undergraduates in STEM can be adapted for online learning, according to researchers who presented at the first webinar hosted by the AAAS-IUSE Initiative. | Rido/Adobe Stock

Hands-on, project-based learning for undergraduates studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics can be adapted for use in an online classroom, according to two researchers who presented their findings at a workshop hosted by AAAS’ Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative.

Evidence-based knowledge like that presented at the March workshop is just one important facet of the initiative, also known as the AAAS-IUSE Initiative. IUSE is also building a community of people invested in those research-based best practices to improve and transform STEM education.

“The AAAS-IUSE Initiative supports faculty, students and the STEM education community by disseminating research and knowledge about STEM teaching, learning, equity and institutional transformation,” Lauren Manier, program associate at AAAS, told more than 100 attendees at the March 23 online workshop.

The initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Program: Education and Human Resources, is one of several AAAS programs that is working to build an informed community rooted in a commitment to STEM education research. It has a parallel in AAAS’ ARISE Initiative for disseminating evidence-based research to prepare STEM educators to teach in high-need school districts, according to Jennifer Carinci, program director of STEM education research at AAAS and IUSE principal investigator.

“This is a similar effort but for undergraduate STEM more broadly,” said Carinci. “What we’re really trying to do with this work is build a community across the IUSE principal investigators” as well as bringing in other members of the undergraduate STEM education community for a “crosspollination of ideas.”

That emphasis on connection is embedded in the IUSE series of discussion-based online workshops – the March event was just the first in a series of six to be held throughout 2021. Organizers received a lot of interest as they planned the series, Manier noted. Of the more than 75 researchers who submitted proposals, 12 presenters were selected to take part in the six workshops. Speakers share their research findings on a range of topics related to undergraduate STEM education, followed by a facilitated discussion among all participants.


Rebecca Campbell-Montalvo, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Connecticut, shared her work on how undergraduate students and educators have quickly adapted to challenges and interruptions to their service-learning program during the COVID-19 pandemic. Campbell-Montalvo interviewed students and faculty taking part in Environment Corps, an interdisciplinary program at UConn in which students work on projects throughout the state as they learn about climate change, brownfields and stormwater. The real-world implications of the program, also known as E-Corps, are quantifiable, not just for the participants – students have produced reports that have garnered more than $1 million in Environmental Protection Agency grants.

Yet the hands-on benefits of E-Corps have been dealt a blow by the COVID-19 pandemic and virtual learning, Campbell-Montalvo said. Students identified challenges that have emerged from online learning, ranging from the inability to visit field sites to the difficulty of making connections and building relationships with professors, guest speakers, community members and one another.

Campbell-Montalvo shared how instructors have adapted to help ensure their students reap the benefits of applied learning in an online classroom. Instructors have focused their courses on projects, taken advantage of online tools like Google Maps and GIS and taken students on virtual field trips.  

Students have also responded well to their instructors explaining things in several different ways to ensure comprehension when students might be less focused and offering plenty of opportunities for questions and clarifications, Campbell-Montalvo said.

These lessons are broadly applicable beyond the current circumstances, Campbell-Montalvo said. “Focus on sustaining relationships and being positive,” she advised.


Chaya Gopalan, associate professor of applied health, primary care and health systems at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, shared her research about “flipped teaching.”

This strategy – in contrast to traditional methods in which students are introduced to a concept in the classroom and reinforce their learning through independent work – first introduces new concepts to students as they work individually, through readings or assignments. Then, the content is reinforced in a group setting, which allows students to work together, ask questions and receive instant feedback to help them apply their new knowledge, Gopalan said. The technique is a useful one to maximize the impact of limited face-to-face instruction time, she noted.

“Flipped teaching can be effectively adapted to online instruction, preserving some aspects of active learning,” Gopalan said.


The workshops are just one avenue for the AAAS-IUSE Initiative to facilitate community and share resources. In addition to a proposal preparation toolkit for members of the community interested in submitting grant proposals, The Disruptor blog launched in January along with the initiative’s new website. The blog features monthly posts on the theme of “leveraging this moment of disruption to empower evidence-based systemic change.”

“These blog posts are carefully crafted to not only help the audience better understand issues related to the theme, but to provide actionable steps that educators and administrators can take now to build a more inclusive STEM education environment,” according to Thomas Veague, IUSE community engagement manager.

Said Veague, “We’re approaching the theme from four different areas, and we’ve brought on four editors to manage each of those sub-areas”:

  1. Enriching Education to Grow Inclusion
  2. Advancing Accessibility in Field Programs
  3. Building Engagement Through Student Centered Learning
  4. Envisioning Dimensions of Equity in an Academic Ecosystem.

The blog’s editors have already published inaugural posts in three of the areas of focus. Mica Estrada, the editor of the section on enriching education, launched the blog with a post on the role of kindness in broadening participation in STEM fields, particularly for people excluded because of their ethnicity and race.

“The emerging evidence strongly suggests that in order to increase equity and inclusion, STEM fields and academic institutions benefit greatly from humanizing the educational experience,” Estrada writes.

Other recent posts include pieces by section editor Christopher Atchison, professor of geoscience education at the University of Cincinnati, writing about the criticality of empowering students and those who have overcome the barriers of inaccessibility to catalyze a cultural shift away from field experience designs that too often exclude students with disabilities. Calvin Briggs, a section editor and the executive director of The Southern Center for Broadening Participation in STEM, writes about increasing STEM engagement by creating supplementary education strategies and curriculum enhancements.

Iris R. Wagstaff, STEM program director and IUSE Co-PI notes, “these inaugural blog posts build on personal journeys in STEM within the context of scholarship on diversity, equity and inclusion to lay the foundation for fruitful discourse on transforming undergraduate STEM education.”

Briggs, for instance, shares his own story as “an African American male who grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey—a product of resilience in a sea of education inequity, stirred by the currents of systemic racism.”

“As a result of my lived experiences, I have become a staunch advocate for substantive education policy that increases equity and access for all communities, placing a particular emphasis on increasing STEM interest, and college and career readiness among communities of color,” Briggs writes.   


These themes will continue to be explored in forthcoming IUSE resources. Two more online workshops are scheduled for Spring 2021: “Best Practices for Supporting Undergraduate STEM Faculty and Students in the Online Transition: Results of NSF RAPID Awards Supported by IUSE” will be held April 21, and “Promoting Equity in Undergraduate STEM Classrooms through Pedagogical Approaches” will take place May 13. A blog post on Envisioning Dimensions of Equity in an Academic Ecosystem by section editor Stephanie E. August, visiting professor of engineering education at California State University, Los Angeles will be published in April.

Subscribe to get the latest IUSE-ful updates and stay tuned for future workshop presenter calls.

The AAAS-IUSE Initiative also offers opportunities for individuals to write blog posts and share project resources related to their research and best practices for undergraduate STEM education. Contact the AAAS-IUSE team to propose a collaboration or submit your proposal for posts, presentations or resources at



Andrea Korte

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